More than 40 local organizers and community leaders met Tuesday morning at UAMS East to try find solutions to problems that continue to plague Phillips County and other areas in the Delta.
Arkansas Advocates for Children and Families (AACF), a Little Rock-based research and policy organization, hosted the event. The Arkansas Out of School Network, the Arkansas Hunger Relief Alliance and the No Kid Hungry Campaign also participated and participated in discussion. Policy experts from AACF and their partner organizations led discussions about food insecurity, health care reform, juvenile justice programs and public education. State Representative Chris Richey attended the workshop.
“AACF is a non-profit organization, non-partisan organization that looks at issues that impact low and middle-income kids and families,” stated Susana O'Daniel, outreach coordinator.
O'Daniel explained that AACF works with state representatives and service providers to provide insight of the needs that should be addressed at the policy level.
“We represent kids and low income families and the policy process can be really long and slow but we have had some major victories since we started this work in 1977,” commented O'Daniel.
According to O'Daniel, AACF was the organization that led the charge to pass the legislation that created ARkids 1st health insurance program. O'Daniel reported that Arkansas had 23 percent of Arkansas children without healthcare insurance and currently stands at only 6 percent today.
“The truth is all children and family efforts cost money and we as a state need to prioritize and determine where your tax dollars are going to go,” commented O'Daniel.
The AACF's process starts with research that helps to identify particular issues, problems or gaps in the services.
“We look for any policy solutions or programs that can intersect one another and be moved around to help push for legislation in making a change or address the problem,” commented O'Daniel.
According to Brett Kincaid, AACF outreach director, each program costs money and it is very important, particularly right now, because so much discussion is centered on money, how much is being invested in ourselves and the service that are needed.
“If we don't think about how much things cost, then it is impossible for us to have quality services provided,” commented Kincaid. “We enjoy getting out across the state to have discussions like these. Our work at the capitol has little meaning if we don't connect it to the people that work locally to make all Arkansas's communities better places to live.”
Kincaid explained that Helena was the first stop of four planned events – known as “policy cafes” – in Arkansas this year. Participants and leaders agree they felt invigorated after the three-hour workshop.
“We know that the affordable care act offers an incredible opportunity to cover parents and that the state of Arkansas has the most restrictive Medicaid program for adults in the country today. Parents can get coverage up to 17 percent of federal poverty level which is the earning of about $3,000 a year for a family of four,” reported AACF health policy director, Ann Strong.
Page 2 of 3 - Arkansas was the first state in the South to adopt the option to include low-income households in Obamacare.
Local residents questioned whom the health care insurance is going to benefit if the businesses decide to cut their employee's hours, like some of the restaurant and gas chains.
“If the employer decides to cut employees' hours, the employee may not have the option of health care through the business. However, there are other health care options for them. Health insurance no longer has to be tied to your work,” explained Strong.
Grade Level Reading Campaign:
“Starting in September, we will be working throughout the districts who have volunteered to stay with the Arkansas campaign for grade-level reading program and we encourage Helena to join us,” stated Jerri Derlikowski, AACF director of Education Policy. Derlikowski explained that in order for each student to reach the goal that all Arkansas children will read at grade level by the end of the third grade school readiness must improve, chronic absence must be reduced, summer learning loss must be stopped and parent and community engagement must be strengthened.
Juvenile Justice Reform in Arkansas:
“There are many different tools that can be utilized when students misbehave, alternatives that do not involve the police, juvenile court, or detention centers,” claimed AACF senior policy analyst, Paul Kelley. Kelley reported that the Positive Behavioral Intervention and Support System (PBIS) focus on implementing positive reinforcement techniques.
“What this system does is reward the student for good behavior, meaning that students have a very clear interest in behaving well,” said Kelley. Kelley explained that PBIS creates a sense of support and appreciation. Kelley reported that is would be important to also implement a preventative program as well as a restorative justice program.
“The arrest and detention of young people does not necessarily teach accountability and responsibility. Instead of having to face the people that have been hurt, the student accused of misbehavior is taken out of school and away from a potential learning experience,” stated Kelley.
Kelley believes that restorative justice seeks to acknowledge the full complexity of social interaction, of contexts outside of an individual's control that may have facilitated inappropriate behavior, while at the same time holding the individual accountable for repairing the situation. According to Kelley this would help decrease the use of law enforcement in schools, lessening the referrals to the juvenile court system and allowing youth to obtain their education and stay out of detention centers.
“Local leaders tell the story of public policy,” said Kincaid. “Their insight into the daily challenges faced by families that struggle to put food on the table reminds us of just how important it is that we make public policy work for them.”
AACF hopes to continue the conversation with the people that attended the Helena Policy Café.
Page 3 of 3 - “Their voices mean much more than ours do at the capital,” said Kincaid. “Legislators need to hear from all of their constituents. Our pledge is to keep these community leaders informed and to provide them with the tools they need to make their voices heard. Elected leaders can expect to hear from the people of Phillips County.”